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Transactional Giving

There’s a Japanese picture book about Mrs Fox who moves in next door to Mrs Racoon. Mrs Fox introduces herself to Mrs Racoon, and gives her a basket of strawberries. Mrs Racoon reciprocates with some bamboo shoots. Mrs Fox then comes back with some flowers. It goes on and on until all the contents of Mrs Fox’s house are in Mrs Racoon’s house and vice versa. It is a humorous kids’ story, but also ann illustration of how a culture of giving and reciprocating can get out of hand. A small gesture of goodwill soon turned into a drive to not be outdone by the other’s generosity. Neither party knows how to break out of the cycle, neither has the objectivity to stop and examine the situation, and there are no winners in the end.

At the back of my new 2023 Japanese diary there is a double page ledger to keep record of relational transactions. On the page on the left there are columns for what you receive from people—the date, the person, the occasion, what the gift was, the amount given if cash, and what you give back in return. On the right hand page there is the same chart for what you give to others, and how they reciprocate.

There are the two major seasonal occasions during the year—ochūgen (mid-year) and oseibo (end of year)—when Japanese feel socially obligated give gifts to those they are grateful to, feel a sense of indebtedness to, or need to keep up a favourable relationship with. These traditions show the Japanese awareness of their interconnectedness and dependence on each other; by giving gifts they show that they value and honour each other. Traditions like these help keep Japanese society running smoothly. They also help take away the ambiguity of where each individual stands.

On the negative side though, traditions like the rules around gift giving can serve to reinforce centuries-old Confucian hierarchical constructs that can be burdensome, and require loyalty and gratitude to be constantly expressed, like a transaction. This often continues senseless cycles of people-pleasing, and at times opens the door to bribery and corruption. Though this side of the culture is much less pronounced than in the past, it’s still a reality in modern-day Japan. Those at the top of pecking order are said to have storerooms full of beautifully wrapped gifts that have never been opened, while those lower down struggle to make ends meet.

It’s not surprising, then, that many Japanese have a transactional view of religion as well. Someone might think: “What do I need to do to get God (or “the gods”) to do what I want?” or “I’ve got a lot of obligations to various people, what if God can’t/won’t fit into that? If, like the Samaritan woman, Japanese heard Jesus say “If you knew the gift of God . . .” and asked him for living water, would they start their ledger with what they have received from God? Perhaps after that they would lose all interest in keeping track of the rest.

By Alison, an OMF missionary

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